Saturday, November 10, 2007

Christ and public schools

Last school year, the school I worked at didn't blink when I asked if it would be any problem if I opened my classroom to a student led bible study for language learners. The girls were Russian speakers and from a very religious background, and the bible study they were amazingly devoted to.

These girls came every single day.

While they were there praying, singing and reading the bible, sometimes it just felt so wrong for me to be gnoshing on my PB&J, that I would lower my head and pray with them. I learned their Russian songs.

The experience was a huge blessing for me, even though I was never ready for the class after lunch.

At one point, we tried to become an official club, mostly for me because I wanted to not feel like we were sneaking around. The only issue came in that there were already something like 3 or 4 other student activities revolving around bible study, and the principal asked me if there was to be a bible study for every language represented in the school.

The caveat was that these girls were happily welcomed every and any person who came through the doors at lunch. They advertised via small business cards that they gave out to people who seemed interested. We had kids from Micronesia and all over the NIS, plus a couple girls who were Muslim. They even stood in prayer with us. To me and to the girls as well, any other way would have just been not at all right.

When I told the principal this, he was was surprised. He was a principal and very hard to read, but he never at any point seemed to have any issue about these girls meeting.

We never made official club status, but we tried and it didn't really matter, the principal knew well that we were there, and he was welcomed.

When I told other people about this they were flabbergasted that this was happening in a public school. But I have since learned that the right to gather peaceably in public is a constitutionally protected right, even for Christians. Christians can gather in school, pray, sing, and yes, read the bible.

Initially I wouldn't stand in prayer with the girls, I thought for sure I would be violating some civil rights thing I learned about.

But I had a change of heart. I decided that if someone was going to fire me for praying during my workday with students who wanted to meet to pray, so be it. I wasn't scared of that. I wouldn't regret my decision for a nanosecond. And it made my day every time those girls came to my room. I felt really happy, like I finally was prioritizing correctly.

I miss that part about that school. The choral groups would roam the halls and sing overtly Christian Christmas songs during the holidays. It felt honest, and it was a beautiful noise.

I have traveled, and while I don't belong to other religions, the bells they ring, their calls to prayer are beautiful to me. They do not offend me. I suppose if they honked their car horns every 5 seconds to show allegiance to their God, then I might get a little annoyed. I can handle the fact that other people do other things to celebrate other holidays that I don't necessarily celebrate and that all this is institutionalized...the banks close on their holidays. I can deal with that.

The idea of making no law that should respect a religion is translated very kooky here in the US. It is a very very good idea to separate church and state. But sometimes it gets very sticky.

The rights of student clubs in public high schools are protected by the First
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Access Act (“the Act”), passed by Congress
in 1984.1 The basic purpose of the Act is to put religious clubs on equal footing with all other
student clubs by allowing them the same privileges and access to school facilities that other
recognized student clubs enjoy.2 Once the school recognizes a single non-curriculum related
club, it is said to have created a “limited open forum,” triggering the Act and entitling all other
qualified student clubs to the same access and benefits of school facilities as that
first club.